In May this year an exhibition called Estuary opens at Museum of London Docklands. The exhibition is of works by contemporary artists who have been inspired by the outer reaches of the Thames, where the river meets the sea. In advance of Estuary, my colleagues and I decided to explore the region that is the source of inspiration for the art works that will be displayed.
We set off from Fenchurch Street station in the City, a station that looks all the world like it has been plucked from a Victorian child’s toy box, and set down amongst the glittering steel and glass towers of 21st century London. Our objective was to traverse the north bank of the Thames into Essex, and to then walk over one mile out into the waters of the estuary along Southend Pier, the longest pleasure pier in the world.
We were advised by station staff to board a train to Shoeburyness, even though curiously it did not show Southend as a destination on the departure board, and we set off. First Limehouse then West Ham, then Barking, and so eastwards. It was a bitterly cold day and snow lay patchily over the marshlands of Rainham,and the Chafford Hundred as we breached the M25 motorway that rings London. Our guide for the day mentioned that we were following in the footsteps of Daniel Defoe, who had taken a similar tour almost 300 years ago, and I later found this quotation:
I set out, the 3d of April, 1722, going first eastward, and took what I think, I may very honestly call a circuit in the very letter of it; for I went down by the coast of the Thames thro’ the marshes or hundreds, on the south-side… passing Bow-Bridge, where the county of Essex begins…
As the industrial river buildings of Tilbury became more sporadic so the hulk of a derelict factory appeared through our carriage window. This together with a statue is all that remains of the Bata shoe factory at East Tilbury. Built in the modernist style in 1932, this ‘Bataville’ was one of many model company towns complete with housing and entertainments for factory workers that were created by the Czech industrialist, Tomas Bat’a, who encouraged Czech workers to relocate to this part of the estuary. In its heyday 4,000 workers lived, worked and played in Bataville, before it finally closed its doors in 2005.
Gradually the industrialised landscape gave way to wide expanses of mud flats that stretched beyond sight into an evanescent haze of mist and weak sunshine. Leigh-on-Sea hove into view, its little railway station framed by cockle sheds and fishing smacks resting on the mudbanks, the estuary waters, now at low tide, a world away. The paintings of Michael Andrews came to mind, the wash and swirl of muddy brown and shaded blue evoking the expanses of the open estuary. How different a landscape from London was now before us! The mists would prevent us seeing the spookily-named Shivering Sands Maunsell Fort – a series of towers built out into the waters of the estuary in 1943 as an early warning system against invasion and now derelict watch keepers. Stephen Turner’s ‘artistic exploration in isolation’ led him to live in one of the towers for six weeks and the resultant work will be part of Estuary.
And finally we reached Southend Central. After a short walk to the seafront we stood above and in front of the pier, which stretched out before us into the sea. The stiff onshore breeze numbed the face and hands as we gazed down onto an amusement park hibernating for the winter. This was exactly the prospect that Simon Roberts captured in his photograph of Southend Pier from his series Pierdom, his ongoing survey of the pleasure piers of England. Roberts extraordinary image however makes Southend look more Miami than the Thames estuary.
It is a long walk to the end of Southend Pier. We were alone and from time to time paused to look back at the receding shoreline. It was not difficult to imagine how the estuary has been an inspiration for artists as varied as Joseph Turner and Charles Dickens, and how it continues to fascinate artists today.
We completed the journey by returning ‘the Essex way’ – that is on the narrow gauge railway that runs the length of the pier, but not before paying a visit to the new cultural centre that opened in 2012 at the end of the pier. Designed by the Swedish firm White arkitekter, the Centre is a splendid new addition that enables artists and performers to take their work, literally, into the estuary.
I imagine that this place we call estuary, an area that defies the drawing of boundaries but nevertheless is held together by the contra movements of the river and sea, will always escape the grasp of London – and yet be perpetually yoked to it. This vagueness perhaps, is what makes it an appealing muse for artists and a fit subject for the Museum’s exhibition.